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The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

By Quillblade and Jadestar

Cereal Killer walked into Fyber's workshop without so much as a knock, intently looking over a page of coded garble that he couldn't understand because his decoder had blown a fuse the other day. "Fyber, have you finished work on the... where is he?"

The room was empty, and looked as though it had been ransacked. Frowning, Cereal looked around, half expecting to see Fyber-Optix hidden with a water gun, but there was nothing. His chest of drawers had been thoroughly rifled through, clothes strewn across the floor. The bottom drawer, however, was as tightly shut as always, hiding the band memorabilia CK had sneaked a look at once. Puzzled, and - though he would never admit it to himself - a little worried, Cereal walked over to the computer, which was still on, and moved the mouse to cut off the screen saver.

Three words, in a red and trickily font, blinked on the otherwise blank screen. Hi there, Vincent.

Cereal stared, and then turned in a flash, ripping that bottom drawer out and snatching up the first poster he could grab. He silently looked it over, then at the empty photo frame on the dresser top where there had once been a picture of the entire HACKERS group, and finally back at the computer.

"Well. Well, well, well."

*****

Fyber-Optix rested his back against one of the thick steel beams of the construction scaffolding, watching the sun set over Keltor, quite a distance from home.

Home.

When had he started calling it that? Vaguely he thought back, but couldn't find an approximate time so he gave up. It was his home, the only one he had. He'd wanted to leave at first, but soon his 'sticking around until the chance arises' stretched on longer and longer, and it wasn't like he'd never had the chance. In the end, he hadn't wanted to leave. Now he had to, or everyone would be killed. Just like Darry and Mercedes and Tek and Kitaria. Just like Minette.

His curse had returned to haunt him. Rep Tealle had finally found him again. An' ya thought ya could avoid him forever, didn' ya? Ya hoped he might have died in the Invasion. Has yer luck ever been that good, Vince ol' boy? Nope. Fat chance. An' he found ya, like ya knew he would.

He tried to shake away that dismal train of thought, and began rifling through his small pack. He hadn't taken much with him, since all his stuff would be too big to carry far, none of it lightweight and a lot of it breakable. He'd taken just a few necessities - his cash-on hand, false credit-card, a spare change of considerably more 'normal' clothes, a pocket-sized laser and his saber just in case, fake IDs, and a few other things... Right at the bottom he found a photograph of himself and the gang; he picked it out. Funny, he mused. He didn't remember packing it.

It was a casual shot, not a posed one as a professional might have taken it - they were just standing around, doing their stuff - he was making bunny ears over Cereal Killer's head. CK had been less than amused about that later, when the picture had been developed, but everyone else had had a good laugh. Fybe included, natch.

Ah, nostalgia, he thought dryly, and tucked the photo back inside his bag, withdrawing instead the false passport IDs. He looked over them, idly flicking through, and then chose one: Ewan Larke. It would need a couple of small changes to his looks, but nothing big - he'd have to have a major personality change, however, for 'Ewan' was a quiet, considerate sort of guy. He didn't have a criminal record and he didn't have any living relatives, except for an eccentric aunt in Tarctica who couldn't be contacted anyway as she lived out back in the outback.

Fyber tucked the ID inside the parka he wore over his normal bodysuit, and then stood there for a while, looking around at Keltor. He really was going to miss this place...

"Where, exactly, do you think you're going?"

Starting in surprise, Fybe spun around to face the source of the voice, skidding in the mud but somehow staying upright. Cereal Killer was regarding him with a carefully blank expression. "Uh... hi, CK." He managed a half-hearted wave. "How'd ya find me?"

"Your little supply of tickets was minus one train trip to Agualas, I came the fastest and most direct route from the base to the southern station." Cereal folded his arms and gave him a dark look. "Why are you leaving?"

"'Cos I want to, and that's all ya need ta know."

"Wrong. You're coming back with me."

"No, yer the one as wrong. I ain' goin' nowhere but where I wanna go." He sighed, and picked up the backpack he'd gone and dropped. The base was muddied, and he looked around for something to brush it off with.

He wasn't really surprised when CK took his arm in a vice-grip. "That's why you're wrong," the older man growled into his face. "You're coming back whether you like it or not, Optix, and I hope you have a good reason for your sudden desertion."

"I do," Fyber snapped back, jerking away and moving out of Cereal's reach. "But I can't tell ya. Jeez, man, jus' lemme go already! This ain' none of yer freakin' business!"

"It's my business if I choose to make it my business, and I choose to make it my business."

Fyber spat a curse at him and started walking away. A half-second later he was spitting mud and curses, as Cereal rocketed forwards and shoved him face down into the dirt. Fybe struggled upright, but immediately had his arms pinned rather painfully behind his back. "Ow! Dammit, that hurts!"

"It'll stop hurting once you tell me why you're leaving without telling us."

"Rack off--argh!" He clenched his teeth hard, trying to ignore that his arms were slowly being wrenched out of their sockets. Cereal seemed to be taking a perverse delight in the job, and gave his arms another painful twist. This time Fyber was sure he heard a crack. "Ah, shitshitshit, okay! Okay, I'll tell ya, jus' stop pullin' my damn arms off!"

Cereal Killer let go with a smug smirk, and Fybe glared at him as he clicked his shoulders back into position. "I'll see you in hell one day."

"You first," said Cereal pleasantly. "Now spill it."

Fyber sighed. "Look, I got a lunatic after me who wants to rip out my guts an' hang 'em round his home on Hallow's Eve. I figure I should get out of town for a while, let it blow over, maybe he'll lose interest..."

"You're lying."

"I know."

"You're not usually so transparent."

"I know. It ain't funny when a guy wants to kill ya, though, and that much is true."

"Tell me the whole truth, Fybe." Cereal smirked. "Or is it Vincent Martin?"

He stiffened, staring at the assassin. "What... the... I... I... how..."

"Vincent Martin," Cereal began, rolling off Fyber's life history as if he'd read a book on it. "Once a top man in the area of hardware design in Pucksoft Incorporated, later lead singer in a band by the name of Fyber-Optix. Charged with multiple murders, starting first with Minette van der Gosaling, stripper at the Driftwood nightclub, The Facade. She was your ex-fiancee, eh? Then, some time later, the other members of Fyber-Optix - Tek Kanarde, backing vocals and guitar, Mercedes Drake, second guitar, Darry Quacklen, drums, Kitiara duLoon, keyboard..."

CK stopped, shaking his head. "The funny thing is, Fyber, you don't look like a killer."

Fyber, who'd grown increasingly paler through the whole recital, exploded at that point. He sprang upright, grabbed Cereal by his shirt and shoved the older man hard into the nearest pylon in one same swift movement that managed to take the assassin by surprise. "That's 'cos I'm not, damn you! They were my friends! I'm not a freakin' murderer, I never done none a' that!"

"You know what?" Cereal Killer said, as he pushed Fybe away from him and brushed off the front of his jacket. "I didn't believe you had. So, who's the man after you?"

"His name's Rep."

"Rep Tealle? The man originally charged with van der Gosaling's murder?"

"Yeah," replied Fyber shortly.

"Why?"

"I sorta stole his girl."

"Ah." Cereal's expression hardened a little. He knew exactly how that felt. "He sounds like he holds long grudges."

"I think he does."

"Once upon a time perhaps," came a voice from behind and below them. Fyber froze as if hit by a blast of liquid nitrogen.

Cereal Killer peered over the cracker's stiffened shoulder - there was a sleek black limousine parked further down the slope, a young man probably not much older than himself lounging against it with an open smile, an immaculate business suit, and a shock of neon yellow hair. The man caught his gaze and waved. "Good afternoon, all."

If this was Rep, then he didn't look much like a killer either. In fact, CK was certain he'd seen that face before somewhere, and it hadn't been on a wanted poster. Cereal turned the still frozen Optix around and gave him a slap on the back. "This is your old... what, nemesis?"

Somehow, Fyber managed a realistic-looking grin at the blonde man down below. His thick accent was dropped as though he'd flicked a switch. "Rep. How nice to see your ugly mug again."

"Ditto to you, Vincent," the newcomer replied.

"You've come up in the world since I last saw you."

"You've gone down. Oh, and please don't call me Rep anymore, it's a name with connections I'd rather not have now."

"Oh yeah, that's right. You prefer Val Goldeneye, don't you?"

Ah, thought Cereal. So that's where I've seen him before.

Val Goldeneye was the head of Webscope Technologies, one of the leading rivals of communications giant Pucksoft Incorporated - in the competitive world of computer technology it was Pucksoft, Webscope, and Remaica Online who fought for supremacy. Suddenly it made much more sense that Fyber had always shunned and refused to buy or repair anything created by Webscope...

Val was nodding slowly. "And you prefer Fyber-Optix. How sweet... a little memorial to those friends whose lives you took?"

"You bastard, you know I didn't..."

"The police don't, however, because a certain little coward ran away rather than risk being put in jail for a few weeks while things were sorted out. Now, listen up, Vincent... I owe you a lot." The smile returned. "If it weren't for you, I'd never have realized how I was wasting my life with crime! I'd never be where I am now, with everything I could have wanted."

Cereal folded his arms, looking bored. He much preferred enemies which shot at you and which you could shoot back at and kill. It was much more fun than standing around talking to them. In fact, if he hadn't been so amused by this little man who so scared Fyber, he'd have shot him before he'd got up to the word 'ditto'. There was something he wanted to know, too. "How'd you find us?" he asked.

Goldeneye gave him an uninterested look. "Who's he?"

Irritatingly, Fyber-Optix copied the man's expression. "Oh, him. He's called Cereal Killer. As in Fruit Loops. Just one of the people I've been hanging around with for a while."

"I don't like your use of the term 'just', Fyber," Cereal muttered. "It sounds like I'm something disposable, and I very much dislike that implication."

Fybe smirked at him, but said something under his breath about 'keeping cool'. "Moving on, Val... You've got me now. What do you want."

"I have a business proposition for you."

Unobtrusively and warningly stepping on Cereal's foot, Fyber gave Goldeneye a suspicious glare. "Business? Proposal, for me? You've got to be joking; I wouldn't work for you if I were insane. You ooze evil like a Saurian Overlord."

"Charming as ever," Goldeneye commented dryly. "But I'm very serious... Fyber... if you don't mind me calling you that."

"Call me whatever you want, I won't answer."

"I don't want you to work for me, Vincent. I want you to work with me."

Fyber-Optix stared at him. "You are kidding... right?"

"Not at all."

"Partners?"

"Right."

"Share the wealth, fifty-fifty?"

"Of course."

"Whoa."

Cereal was thoroughly disgusted; Fyber was actually considering it. He really didn't care about anyone but himself. And to think for just a moment back there he actually thought he'd seen a glimmer of an unselfish attitude...

"Old acquaintances will have to be left behind, of course," Goldeneye continued. "This fella, for instance... Juice Squeezer, or whatever."

That annoyed him no end. "Cereal. Killer."

"I say again, whatever."

Cereal did his best not to go flying off the handle. "Maybe you two should go into partnership," he grated. "You're both as irritating as the other, think of all the fun you'll have tearing one another's throats out..."

He probably shouldn't have taken his attention off Fyber for as long as he had, because just after he'd spoken the word 'out', a brick connected heavily with the back of his head.

*****

Cereal blinked slowly, remaining where he lay for a few moments before he rose up onto his hands and knees. Cold, sticky mud was plastered all over him where he'd landed, and around his face it had dried. He rubbed it off, sitting back in a crouch.

Night had fallen while he'd been unconscious, but he had no idea how late it actually was. The two moons had risen very high, however, so it was obviously well into the wee small hours of the next morning. So Fyber had hit him pretty hard...

Fyber.

"That... that... that..." Cereal spluttered a little longer before he realized he didn't have a word in his Ingallish vocabulary which suited. Snarling a curse in his native tongue, he pushed himself up onto his feet, watching the world sway back and forth around him. No - he was the one swaying; he leant heavily against the beam just behind, waiting for the dizziness to fade. A light touch to the back of his skull proved there was a very sore, very large lump there. "I'm gonna kill him."

Of course, first things first - he needed to find out where Fyber had gone. And he really, really needed to put some ice on his head.

Cereal Killer staggered homewards.

*****

The clock said 1AM. It hadn't changed since Fyber had smashed it on the office floor to stop the ticking, about an hour previous or even longer, so more likely it was 2AM, even 3AM. Slouched at his new desk, still in his cracker uniform, without an actual place to stay as yet since Val was still organizing it, Fyber-Optix was silent, remembering.

Goldeneye had tracked him down because he'd made the stupid mistake of letting himself get too well known in the underground. Anonymity only went as far as your reputation. And Val had tracked him, like a relentless bounty hunter, until he came up with a city, a street, and a house. He was very good at doing that...

Staggering under the weight of five shopping bags, one of which contained about a weeks worth of tinned fel food and bikkies, Vincent Martin grappled valiantly with the handle of the front door before shouldering it open, half-walking and half-tumbling into the kitchen just beyond. No one came to help him, and he muttered something long and involved that included the terms 'ungrateful sloths' and 'lazy asses', but in a friendly way.

The TV was going in the lounge room - from the kitchen it sounded like so much static, but since the aerial was crooked it sounded like so much static when you were standing right next to it; somehow they managed to put up with it being like that. He glanced at the clock as he started laying out this week's supplies - veggies in the fridge's veggie box, fruit in the fruit basket, fel food on the pantry floor, meats in the freezer... They had a place for everything, and Vince was rather fussy about keeping everything in order. It always made it easier to find when you needed it immediately.

He put a collection of cherry colas aside on the bench; he always brought back a can for everyone, including himself - it was a treat that had become a habit. Vincent was pretty much an obsessive cola addict now. Two more loads of plain cola went into the drink stand in the fridge.

Ever since Minette had... moved away... Vince had tried many ways of forgetting. They included getting drunk frequently, flirting, fixing things whether they were broken or not, and plenty of others - none of them had worked. So he'd settled for just plain denial. She wasn't dead at all, she just left the country. For a better country. Somewhere far away.

He sighed, chewing absently on a stick of carrot. It wasn't working any more.

"Hey, guys!" he called. "Cola, come and get it!" No one answered him. "Well, fine, if you lot don't want it, all the more for me!" He flicked the ring off one of the cans and stuffed the empty shopping bags into the bag-sack in the bottom cupboard. Still no one came in, and Vince started wondering what was so enthralling on the TV that kept the gang from their caffeine. Shrugging it off, he wandered into the hallway again, and stopped in horror.

There was a damp stain on the carpet! Probably fel pee. Ugh. "You guys are really hopeless housecleaners, you know that?" he muttered, going back into the kitchen and ripping out a fistful of paper toweling from the roll. He dropped it on the stain and stamped down with his foot, glancing at the slightly open lounge room door further up the hall. "If it weren't for me, this place would be a dump."

He looked down again, and froze. Then he very carefully took his shoe off the stain, staring in horrified fascination at the sole's pattern glaring bright red through the toweling. Then a drop splashed onto it from above. Vince looked up. Big mistake.

Kitiara... was... nailed... to the... ceiling...

Vince stumbled back, his mouth open but his voice fled for its life. "Guys?!" he eventually screamed, racing for the lounge room door. It burst open and he tripped over someone's arm. Just their arm. Darry's, by the look of the neon blue wristwatch. The rest of him was over by the fireplace. Tek and Mercedes were elsewhere in the room.

Many elsewheres.

Vince swallowed hastily as his stomach tried to flee as well, but through his mouth, and stood up, staring at the television straight across from him. The screen showed nothing but hissing static, except for the three words dribbled on the front: Hi there, Vincent.

"Oh, Drake," he moaned.

"Sorry, but he's not in right at the moment."

The voice came from somewhere to his right. Vincent managed to turn as if on an axle. A man only a few years older than him with a thick shock of bright yellow hair was lounging on the sofa, polishing a butcher's knife on a cloth that had either been badly dyed or recently dyed... "Good morning."

"Who the..."

"Rep Tealle."

The name clicked and connected. Vince turned to run for the door, but everything seemed to be moving so slowly, like thick golden treacle... Rep moved superfast, however, and blocked his path before he'd even stumbled around in a ninety-degree turn. The edge of the butcher's knife tickled the underside of his bill. "You don't turn away from guests, Vincent."

"Why... you're the one who... why...?"

"You stole Minette from me!" A heavy blow to the face accompanied the shout and Vince hit the carpet hard, bouncing on a shredded cushion. "We were happy until you came along! And then you stole her, tried to marry her!"

"And then you killed her!"

"She called me insane!"

"You are insane!"

Another blow - this time a kick to his side. Wincing, Vince curled up in a tight ball, and Rep sneered at him. "She left me for you... and what are you? A failure, a loser, a wash-out, a wimp, a pathetic example of duckkind, that's what you are!" He was kicked again, this time in the small of the back, a kick that sent him sprawling into the back of the nearest chair. Rep appeared to be enjoying himself. "Failure, loser, wash-out, wimp, failure, loser, wash-out, wimp," he chanted in a monologue, driving his boot into Vince's side as extra emphasis to every insult. "Come on, Vincey-boy! You're putting up even less fight than your buddies did!"

Vincent - eternal nice-guy Vincent - snapped, twisting around and kicking with both feet right in Rep's stomach. Winded, the other sat down gasping, and Vincent took that time to struggle to his feet, but the blow hadn't been terribly hard and quickly Rep was back up, knife in his hand and charging at him in a flying tackle that had the both of them tumbled backwards. The knife stabbed down toward him, but Vince flung out a hand, and instead of going through his chest the blade sliced across his forearm, stopping a couple of inches from his face. Scared into action, Vincent grabbed Rep by the throat with one hand and the man's knifearm with his other and shoved hard his both hands and feet - Rep sailed backwards into the fireplace, and the poker fell off the mantelpiece, bouncing on his head and stunning him.

For a little while, Vince just lay there, staring at the gash around his arm as blood oozed out and ran down onto the carpet. He just lay there, until Rep began groaning and moving, whereupon he picked himself up and staggered out the doorway. Realizing he was still clutching the knife in his hand, he forced his fingers open and threw it onto the floor, where it stuck point-first. Then he dashed to the front door, flung it open, and ran as fast as he could - not in any particular direction, but just away...

Blinking slowly and raising a hand to run across his eyes - the first actual movement he'd made since sitting down - Fyber continued to stare at the frozen numbers of the broken timepiece, as if waiting for them to change. They never would, however, and so time ticked on that he was completely unaware of.

*****

39 Drake Drive was in a shambles. The door was ajar, and swung a little in the light breeze that whistled through the block. Cereal Killer didn't even have to look through a window to know they'd been raided.

One step inside confirmed what he knew; the walls were stained with black graffiti, the floor with mud trodden inside from the damp lawn and scuffed into the carpet. A table was overturned, the vase which had held flowers bought just that morning by Cassie lay smashed on the ground, its pieces kicked into a corner. Cipher's door was kicked in, the wood splintered, and his room was a mess - he wasn't there, either. The doorway leading down to the kids room, and (he suspected) the room itself, was in a similar state.

Fyber's door was locked and untouched.

Cereal raced upstairs, ignoring his own room which was chaos realized and Griffon's which was more of the same, up the next flight of stairs to Xenon's tiny attic room - but she was gone, too, her place as messed around with as the others.

He felt strangely numb as he looked round at the disaster site that was once a bedroom. Her window had been shattered from the inside, and spidery black spray-paint scrawled the length and breadth of the walls. The bed was overturned and the slats underneath it jumped upon and snapped, her computer was blown out, chairs and other furniture chucked around, broken into pieces...

He stepped out again, turned away and looked down from the landing. He closed his eyes, not really wanting to see any more. The whole place was a wreck, and everyone was gone. Dead, for all he knew. And as far as he was concerned right then, there was only one way anyone could have discovered their whereabouts. A hand drifted to the gun on his hip and he drew it out, checking the number of bullets he had left in it.

One left.

One shot.

That bullet had Fyber-Optix's name on it.

*****

Despite Fyber's unconscious decision not to fall asleep, somehow or another during the night-- er--morning, he did, because he most definitely woke up at the sound of the buzzer zazzing outside his door. He sat up sharply, recognized the shape through the smoked glass of the door-window, and quickly reached into the lower drawer for the gun he'd stuffed there last night. "Come in."

Val Goldeneye entered with his typical oil slick of a smile. "Good morning, Vincent, I hope you slept as well as you could in this little place?"

"Actually, hardly slept at all," he lied, fingering the trigger out of Goldeneye's sight. "So, partner, what's up for today, huh?" He was given all the details of what he quickly decided was the most boring - but rich - job that you could ever hope to get. It included a lot of paperwork. Somehow, despite almost everyone being on an extended weekend because of renovations in the building, there was still a lot of paperwork.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Val my man, where's the parties? Where's the fun times had by all?" He forced out a quick laugh. "Where's the lazin' on yer own private tropical beach wit' yer own private yacht and yer own private jet waitin' ta take ya back to yer own private airport where yer own private limo an' chauffeur will drive ya back home to yer own private mansion, huh?"

"I think you have a few misconceptions about rich living, Vince."

Fyber grinned brightly. "Yeah, yer prob'ly right."

"And what happened to your voice?"

"Huh? Oh, right." He flipped the switch to his vocal chords again, reverting back to the plain Remaican one he'd used to own. "Sorry, old habits have a bad habit of dying hard, you know."

"Ah." Goldeneye gave him a speculative look, shrugged, and stepped up to his desk, leaning on the edge. He was about to speak again, but Fyber lifted up the gun and tapped it on his beak. The man went a little cross-eyed as he stared down the barrels.

"Bang," Fybe said softly. "And I'll be showing you more consideration than you did my pals, or Minette. Bang, you're dead. How slow did you make them die, Rep? Did you cut them up as carcasses, or when you'd slit all the tendons so they couldn't crawl away?"

Goldeneye looked amused, but his smile was just a little nervous. "Now, now, Vince... I thought we agreed to put our pasts behind us?"

"I'll put it behind me once I've fired this bullet between your eyes."

"Then go ahead and shoot me." Fyber hesitated, and Val's grin became less nervous. "You can't, can you. You're not a killer, Vincent. Deep in your mind, you believe that if you fire, if you kill me, you're really as bad as myself. And guess what? You'd be right."

Smoothly, Val plucked the gun out of Fyber's loose grip and tucked it away under his suit. "Now let's stop all this foolishness and actually get on with our jobs. I want to show you something I've been working on for the last few months."

*****

An incessant, frantic beeping interrupted the humming rhythm of Cutter's mainframe, and he was immediately out of bed and in the chair before he'd even begun to wake up. Rubbing a hand quickly over his eyes, he blinked at the vid-message attempting to link up. "At this hour of the morning?" he wondered, before looking at the clock and realizing it was actually a quarter to seven.

The vid connected to show Cereal Killer on the other end, looking as stony-faced as ever, and a scene of total destruction behind him. Cutter raised an eyebrow. "In the light of certain appearances, I think I should forgo the usual 'good morning', as it obviously hasn't been one."

"I'll tha---you l---ter." The screen crackled; it was a bad connection, but judging by the background, probably the best CK could whip up with what they had left. "--e've been raided. Fyber sold us---t---he deserted and sold us out."

Cutter blinked slowly. "Really."

Again the vid went snowy, and Cereal's next line was very garbled. "Drak---dammit---ndrews---nee---help---ca---do this---alone!"

"I'm losing you."

"Shit," came through loud and clear.

Cutter tapped his beak. "Try adjusting the aerial, Cereal. Cereal? Did you hear me?" Nothing answered but snow. "Damn." Grimacing, he was about to cut the connection, when CK abruptly returned to the screen.

"Don't touch that dial. I need your help."

He raised his other eyebrow. "Try that aerial again, Cereal, I'm not so sure you came through right. I thought I heard you ask me for help, that can't possibly be correct."

Cereal glared at him. "Unfortunately, you heard right. Look, just get yourself and Sparky down here." The screen turned back to fuzz, and it seemed that Cereal wasn't interested in re-connecting the link.

Cutter sighed. Well, he was already awake, why not?

*****

Rapping smartly on the door of A01, Cutter stepped back to wait. He'd already collected some things that he thought Cereal might need, even though a little more information about what had happened would have been helpful.

There was no response from the room. "Sparky, wake up!" He kept waiting, but sighed. It was seven o'clock, it wasn't so early, why did that boy need so much sleep? He conveniently didn't remember his own complaints about the time just a few minutes before.

After another minute, Cutter sighed, keyed in the pass-code, and entered the room. Shockwave was curled up under a small mountain of blankets, still asleep. He gave the sleeping boy a gentle shake. "Hey, Sparky."

Shockwave rolled over. "Mum, see, the teddy talks..."

Cutter rolled his eyes. "Shockwave!"

The red-head opened his eyes. "What a big bear," he murmured.

There wasn't time for this. "Get up."

Sparky rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, morning..."

"Cereal just contacted me. Seems they got hit pretty bad last night. Place is a mess, and I didn't see anyone else. He wants help."

A frown. "He does? I mean, from us?" Sparky shook his head, trying to clear it. "Wait, lemme get dressed..."

*****

Cereal was sitting on the edge of the gutter when they got to the house, staring at the road. He didn't seem particularly interested in anything other than the tarmac, or the gun which he was tossing from hand to hand. Cutter kicked down the lean on his motorbike and hopped off, tucking his helmet under one arm as Sparky stepped off beside him.

"Cereal?"

At the sound of Cutter's voice, CK looked over at them and stood up. "Come in."

That's okay, no thanks needed... The words were about to be spoken when Cutter peered in the door. He changed his mind. "This isn't police work. It isn't even Enforcer work."

"I know."

Shockwave worriedly picked up a piece of glass. "Where is everyone?"

"That's what I need your help with."

Cutter checked the paint on the wall to make sure it was dry before leaning back. "You'd better tell us the story."

After he had, there was a short silence. Then, "Do you think Fyber really did this?"

Cereal nodded. "Who else? He knocked me out. And they did have him down for those murders."

Dusting off a cracked computer screen, Shockwave sighed. "I dunno. He's been with you guys for years now. Surely he wouldn't change sides just like that, even for fifty-fifty of some mega... multi-billion... well, okay, maybe, but still..."

Holding up his hand, Cutter brought them both back to the point. "So, Cereal, what do you want us to do, exactly?"

Cereal shrugged. "Help me find them."

"But they could be dead. If this Goldeneye is anything like you described, they probably--" Cutter found himself pulled beak-to-beak with a furious-looking CK. "--are?"

"They are not dead! Don't even think that!" A staring contest ensured, before a cough from Sparky reminded Cereal of where they were.

He let go of Cutter's shirt. "Just come with me to Webscope. If I go by myself, I'll only end up getting caught too." And that, Cutter knew, was a major leap for CK to admit it out loud. "At least with the three of us there's a greater chance that one or two of us might not be, and will be able to rescue the others."

*****

"What a hideous creation," Fyber commented, looking at the machine which jutted pieces here and there like some kind of oversized, sickly metal porcupine. It wasn't small enough to be called immense, or gargantuan, or enormous... it filled half the room, and the room itself was... BIG! Big-big-big-big type of big. So this machine was the kind of big that made you decide that size really did matter after all; huge, and black, and slick with oil - but it wasn't oil the room stank of, it was something else. For some reason, the room smelt of cherry soda pop.

Goldeneye looked just faintly indignant at his observation. "I don't think it's that ugly."

"It looks like a saurian with a severe bone disorder."

"It has a certain style."

"Oh, yeah," Fyber agreed, as the engine chuffed quietly in the background. "You could almost call it modern art. What with all the sides being seen from the one point of view, all it's missing is the bright color and Beikasso's signature."

"All right," said Val testily. "But as unusual the structure, it serves its purpose very well."

"What is--"

"Direct your attention to the wall over there." Goldeneye raised a hand to.. well, a 'wall' was a very good description, except it was a wall that looked just a little bit unstable, what with all the cooling canisters piled up on one another with nothing to hold them up but air. Of course, they probably had to save on room space or the whole place would be one tight squeeze, despite its gargantuan size.

"Now," the man continued, "As you probably know, it has been in the news quite a bit of late, Webscope has recently bought a company that specializes in guns, missiles and other projectile weaponry, and also devices of espionage and infiltration. Spy satellites, bugs, you know. All the things people haven't used in real life since the last major war about fifty years ago."

"Oh, so the saurian invasion wasn't major enough for you, eh?"

"It was inconvenient." And Goldeneye brushed it away just like that. "Can you guess where this is going yet, Vincent?"

"You want to start a war?" he asked dryly.

Goldeneye looked surprised. "Actually... yes."

Fyber stared at him. "Wha'?"

"What's the point of all the expense put into making big weapons and spy things if you're never going to use them? They're just a waste of money, sitting there gathering cobwebs as more of them are piled on top of the old ones." With his arms behind his back as if strolling along Memory Lane, Goldeneye wandered in a slow circle around Fyber. "A waste of such beautiful creations."

"Isn't it. In fact, if I could, I'd go right up to these storehouses or whatever you're talking about, set a bomb right in there with them and run like heck before the whole place blew sky-high. Problem solved, no more weapons."

"But you'd think like that, wouldn't you? You're one of those people who like the quick and simple answer, with minimum fuss and maximum explosion if possible. But I've spent a lot of money buying into this weaponry business, and I intend to get some use out of it."

Fyber continued to stare, and then looked sharply at the canisters. "What's in those? You can't hide ammo in a cooling pot..."

"Not ammo, acid." He must have looked as blank as he felt because Goldeneye deigned to explain further. "The acid is V-8, a particularly powerful acid that once, a long time ago when wars were considerably more vicious, was used in grenades and bombs. Rather a nasty chemical, as both a liquid and gas, it burns through cloth, skin, and organic materials but has no effect on plastic, glass, stone or metal. Very rare nowadays, and harder still to create, it's considered very valuable by those who would plan to use it."

"I think I see where you're heading with this."

"Oh, good. I was afraid I was going to have to tell you every last detail."

"You're going to sell it to someone, some kind of terrorist..."

"Indeed. A rather large but under-armed terrorist group in Mayala."

"Lemme guess, here... The Gacian Independent Forces?"

Goldeneye clapped. "Correct!"

"Why?"

A sigh. "The GIF is anti-Nyanyanese, and the Nyanyanese are anti-Gacian, despite Gacia being a benign neighbor who provides them with economy. The Nyanyanese are just itching for the chance to sink their teeth into Gacia, and the GIF are the same. They'll bomb the Nyanyan embassy. A war between the countries will ensue, bringing much income to my business. You know... for a moment there I thought you actually understood."

Fyber shook his head slowly. "It's very hard to understand a total raving lunatic," he said. "Count me out, buh-bye..."

"Don't be in such a hurry to leave, Fyber-Optix, or I might have to do something nasty."

"What?" He grinned, but there wasn't any humor in that grin. "Kill me? You've already tried that, and I don't see any weapon in your hands."

"Not you," Val replied calmly. "Our guests."

He hesitated, glancing at the door. "What guests?"

"Your friends."

"My... oh no. Val, Val, Val, you've got it all wrong! They aren't my friends, they're just... colleagues, work-mates, nothin' else. Hell, I don't even like 'em."

"Ah. Then you won't mind me getting rid of them."

Silence.

"I thought so." Goldeneye grinned at him. "Let me make it simple for you, Vinnie. I'm a man whose expertise lies in finance, not science. You will help me with what I need - and that is certain technical knowledge that I, despite my current occupation, don't have very much of - and your friends will live. Attempt to go to the police and I will kill them, and in any case you'll immediately be arrested. Who would they believe?" he taunted. "A reputable businessman, or a cracker who happens to be wanted for a series of murders?"

"I could prove..."

"No, you couldn't. It's just your word against mine. That's all. And when it comes right down to it, what matters today in delivering justice isn't right or wrong. It's your position in society and how much money you've got." Goldeneye absently checked his watch. "Now, I have places to be, so do let me escort you out of here..."

Fyber let himself be led out.

*****

Riiiiing. Riiiiing. Riiiiing. Riii --click. "If this isn't an insanely beautiful woman, I'm hanging up."

"They've taken Xenon." The bland tones belonged to Cereal Killer.

"So it's about an insanely beautiful woman. Close enough." The young man known to the HACKERS as The Mad Hatter settled back in his chair with his feet tucked up on the edge. He looked at the calendar-clock. It was late morning, but it was also a weekend day, so he had most of the day free to himself. "Why are you calling me?"

On the other end of the line was a moderately busy street, where three semi-inconspicuous ("There's no logic in being totally inconspicuous," Cereal had said, "That draws as much attention as wearing a bright pink shirt with the words 'I'm here' printed on the front...") men walked down the road.

Sparky and Cutter were about a pace or two behind Cereal Killer, who was on the cellphone. The boy frowned slightly. "Why don't we know this guy?"

Cereal covered the mouthpiece with a hand, looking over his shoulder. "He's a contact, like you two. He... is in a different business."

"Your business?" Cutter sounded caustic.

Cereal ignored him and turned back to the phone. "Xenon, ZC, Cassie, Griffon and Cipher have all been taken. Fyber sold us out to the head of Webscope."

"My condolences. Again, why are you calling me?"

"Myself and two members of the Brotherhood are going to try and find them. Sources on the Net say that the main Webscope building in DC Metro is undergoing renovations, so we think they're there. If you could get into the system and watch the security cameras for us, you could make sure we don't run into a guard, or maybe even pin-point their location."

"Will do." The Mad Hatter, more commonly known to the world as John Drake, a lowly worker in data entry for the Puckworld Government, started switching on his computers. He set his phone on 'speaker' so he would have his hands free for typing. "When are you going in?"

"Tonight, but Webscope has above average security."

"Meaning I should start now." John started worming his way through servers. "You're just lucky it's not a working day."

*****

Xenon woke with a gasp as someone slapped her hard across the face, and her mind stumbled out of its dark sleep back into the currently stinging real life. Upon opening her eyes, the first thing she saw was a youngish man with bright blonde hair and an oily smile. She shut her eyes again, pulling her head away from his hand, which was still cupped along her cheek. "Who are you?"

"My, what a prosaic question." He moved back and put his hands in his suit pockets, still grinning broadly. "Val Goldeneye, my dear.. I'd shake your hand but, alas, those pretty little things are tied up along with the rest of you."

She frowned, realizing what he meant as she attempted to stand and found herself quite tightly bound up, as well as still being in her PJs. "Ah. I see. Scum, in other words." She pushed back against the wall and used it to try and get to her feet. "This is just a guess, but - even if I ask nicely - you aren't going to untie me, huh?"

"No." Goldeneye looked amused. "I wouldn't."

Xenon finally managed to get up. "So, what is this going to take?"

He backhanded her across the face, hard enough to make her fall down, landing painfully on her shoulder. "Oops, clumsy me," he said insincerely. "It's going to take nothing, my dear. You will stay here as it suits me. Besides, you make a nice ornament to this otherwise rather boring room."

Spitting out a piece of fluff, Xenon scowled at him. "You sure have an interesting way of treating guests. You must make a lot of friends this way."

"Actually, I do. Vincent, for example, is one of my more recent additions."

It took her a couple of moments' confusion before the name connected with a person. "I'd like to talk to him."

"I'm afraid that's just not possible, my dear."

"I'm not your 'dear'. Speaking of friends, where are all mine?"

Goldeneye shrugged. "That depends on what kind of afterlife they believe in."

Xenon froze for a second as his nonchalant words hit like ice, but tried to keep going. "I'll call that bluff, thank you."

"What do you expect me to show you?" Again, he looked amused. "Death certificates? Bodies? The latter were all cremated to save on expenses and questions." He spread his hands with a mock-sorrowful expression. "So I'm afraid I can't give you anything. Oh.." With a snap of his fingers, Goldeneye withdrew ZC's hat from his jacket, and tossed it onto the ground in front of her. "That came off the little boy before we threw him in the furnace. Maybe you'd like to keep it?"

"You're lying..." she said in a rather sing-song tone, turning away, trying not to let herself think that he could be telling the truth. He's not telling the truth... people like him never do... he's lying. He has to be lying... "If you killed them, there's no reason to keep me alive."

He clicked his tongue. "On the contrary, my dear... I happen to think you might be.. very useful..."

She turned back, wary. "Explain."

The man's grin somehow managed to grow wider. "Use your imagination." He reached out and ran a finger down her arm. Xenon tried not to shudder.

"You're about seven years too late for that," she snapped, trying to shrug him off.

The grin became colder. "Who says it has to be willing?" Xenon started staring hard at the ceiling above her. Goldeneye chuckled and moved a bit closer. "That ceiling's not as interesting as..."

"What the heck are ya doin'?!"

Goldeneye jumped slightly, but stood and looked around with a tight grin. Fyber was standing in the doorway, his expression unreadable but his body language pretty obviously furious. "Vincent, what a pleasant surprise. And I thought you were far too busy to come down here..." A thinly veiled reprimand-cum-threat was plainly evident in his voice.

Xenon stopped looking at the ceiling, but she refused to look back at Goldeneye. "Yes, fancy meeting you here, Vincent."

Fybe smirked at her. "Yeah... hi, babe." He looked away from her quickly, turning on Goldeneye. "Can I talk to her now, please please please? I got some things I've been really wanting to say to her for a long time."

"Very well." Looking annoyed even so, Goldeneye waved him in and headed out. "I'll see you later, my dear," he added to Xenon, before the door closed.

Immediately, she wiggled her bound up wrists towards Fyber, who stood looking suddenly awkward in the middle of the room. "This is where you untie me. Then we..." She paused for a second. "Then we go find the others. There are others, aren't there?"

"I... Xena, I..." He sighed. "I can't untie ya, Xenon. I'm sorry."

Xenon stared up at him, surprised enough into looking vulnerable. "Et tu, Fybe?" she asked bitterly.

He looked away again, unable to face her. "The others are alive," he said eventually. "Val's not gonna kill anyone yet. And CK's still out there. Ya might even be able ta count on him rescuing ya. But I can't help you escape."

She set her lips, furious, and scooped Zee's cap up with her toe. "At least give Zee back his hat."

Sighing, Fybe reached down and picked it up, twisting it about in his hands. "Ya don' understand my position here, Xena," he muttered.

"Well, look at it this way," she grated, glaring at him. "My position is bound up on the floor here and being threatened with rape. I don't think I have enough worry left to include you."

"Whattaya expect me ta say, Xena? Oh, Drake, I'm in the wrong! Here, let me help you so I can get killed and a whole lot of others can die too!" He swung around and kicked the wall, leaving a slight dent in the plaster coating, then rounded on her again. "Of course I wanna help ya! Of course I wanna get you an' ZC an' Cassie an' Griffon an' Cipher outta here! But. I. Can't. Do that. Not yet. Look," and now he sounded almost desperate, "I'll try keep Val away from ya, but I can't do more than that. I'm sorry."

Xenon made a sour noise. "Arguing will get us nowhere." But something he'd said replayed itself in her mind, and she glanced up. "Who's going to die if you help us?"

He looked edgy. "I dunno. You an' the others, more than likely."

Leaning forward, she said, "But we'll get away! Far away! You too!" He wasn't the only desperate one. "Can't you even help the kids? Not even Zee and Cass??"

Turning around on his heels, Fybe hissed a sigh through his teeth. "Val's got a chemical factory underneath this buildin'," he said abruptly. "He's manufacturin' a huge shipment bound fer Mayala, ta some terrorists there. They're gonna use it ta bomb the Nyanyanese embassy in Gacia, thereby startin' a war between two a'ready unfriendly countries which'll bring a lotta big business possibilities to a company recently expandin' inta building hi-tech weaponry and espionage devices."

"And he asked you for help? Why does he need you?"

"I dunno," he replied evasively.

She glared at him. "Of course you do. Give me some credit."

Fyber sighed and leant against the wall. "Technical knowledge, mostly. Things I know how ta do an' he doesn't. Plus..." He smiled dryly. "He didn't mention it, but I ain't that stupid. I'm the fall guy in case anythin' goes wrong an' the stuff is traced. Heck, who could be a better pick? I'm already wanted fer murder. I can't go to the cops wit' the story, an' even if I did, he'd... he'd kill you guys."

Like he's not going to anyway. Xenon grimaced. "Can I at least, please, have a drink?"

"Yeah, uhh.." Fyber patted around his belt-pockets, finally pulling out a small plastic bottle. He grinned a little sadly. "Sorry, it's cola, and it's not much, but it's all I got on me. When I go outta this room, I'm not likely gonna be allowed back in."

She met his eyes, but looked away, opening her beak and trying to sit up more. "Okay, ready."

He knelt down next to her and helped her up into a better sitting position first. "Xena, I am sorry 'bout this, ya gotta believe me," he muttered, unscrewing the bottle top and pouring some of the cola into her mouth. "I didn' know."

Xenon spluttered for a second, then swallowed in a quick gulp, the only slightly warm liquid running down her throat bringing at least a small amount of relief. "Are you able to see the others?" she asked finally. "They're probably thirsty too."

He shook his head. "I dunno if I can, but I'll try. Ya ain' that far from them. Just far enough."

"Well... try. If they've had a reception like mine, they'll be scared."

"Oh, right, and me comin' in is gonna make 'em feel much better, I'm sure," he said, laying the sarcasm on thick. "Betrayal's such a comfortin' subject, ain' it?" He switched tones abruptly. "You need any more? 'Fraid I can't offer food, I don' carry anythin' more edible than gumballs around."

Xenon shook her head, and started hitting the side of it against the wall, hard. Wincing, Fybe stood up and moved back toward the door, tucking the bottle away, mumbling something about how he should be leaving now. She paused and looked at him, already beginning to bruise around her head and face. Her eyes were afraid. "I guess I'll see you around," she said softly.

"Yeah," he said as faintly. "I'll see ya."

As he left, the door locking automatically with a barely audible click, Xenon closed her eyes for a second, then continued trying to make herself look as ugly as possible. And she kept on beating herself against the wall until she slipped unconscious.

*****

The hall outside his office was currently carpeted with newspaper, dotted with a few tins of paint, and with a ladder sticking out halfway across the hall. The painters didn't come until nine. Fyber-Optix sighed heavily, looking at the cap in his hands as he dodged these various terrors without apparently noticing them.

He had, as he'd feared, been unable to reach the others. Goldeneye had been waiting for him down the hall, and Fybe had to wonder how much of the conversation he'd heard. However much, the guy hadn't been pleased in the least, but he-himself was still alive, so that was okay. It meant he could always try again. If at first you don't succeed...

Sticking the baseball cap on his own head and planning how to sneak down there to the others with a bottle of H2O, Fyber stepped into his office. And stepped back out again in surprise. "Zee?" The boy was standing with his back to him, looking out the window. "Zee! How'd you get out of.."

The boy turned an impossibly fast about-face, and revealed that it wasn't Zee at all - it was a horrible caricature of Zero Cool, the face mutilated beyond dark imagination. The eyes were hanging, dried red teardrops at the sides, feathers fallen out and flies crawling into deep lacerations in the bloodless white skin...

The hologram vanished suddenly.

"Val!! You bastard! You sick, twisted bastard!!"

Goldeneye appeared with a heart-stopping abruptness, placing a hand on Fyber's shoulder, a chilly smile playing over his face. "Tsk, tsk, Fyber-Optix. Don't lose your temper like that. It was merely a reminder of what I could do if I thought that you were double-dealing behind my back. I don't like that."

Fyber pulled away from him and leant against the doorway, shivering. "You... you... no... Zee's just a kid, ya wouldn't kill him..."

"Don't be so sure," said Val coldly, as he swung about and walked off. Fyber watched him go, unable to do anything else but glare. After only about seven steps, Goldeneye paused. "I expect you'll be down at the cafeteria for breakfast in about fifteen minutes. Please wear something that's not of your current bad taste?"

*****

The day flew past and nothing much seemed to happen. Morning, midday, they came and then they went. Evening didn't fall - it collapsed, smothering the world with a brief orange glow before the winter snowclouds took over and turned the sky pink, then purple, and then black.

*****

Zero Cool's eyes were gummy, but he'd struggled to open them earlier that day, and he tried to open them again now when something cold like water splashed against his face. He licked at his beak - it was water. Carbonated water, but water. He opened his mouth, and whoever had splashed him with the liquid poured more of it into his mouth; he almost choked, but managed to swallow. Then he forced his eyes open. It was dark - there was little light in the room, not enough to make anything but even darker shapes out. Someone was sitting beside him, an arm helping him sit up. He tried to speak, but only a hoarse squeak came out.

"Hey there, Zee." The voice was a whisper, as if afraid of being heard. It was also familiar.

"Fybe?" he croaked out. It was met with another mouthful of water, which he swallowed quickly, his throat starting to feel less dry.

"Yeah, kid, it's me."

"Fybe!" Zero clung to the older man's arm. As usual when scared, the kid slipped back into his childhood lisp. "There was all thethfe nathty people coming in, they was hittin' evvyone an'... an'... an' they was wrecking the plathfe, an' thfmashing all the compth, an' there was a really thcary guy there an' he was thayin' thingth 'bout Xen, an' he was in charge, I know it, he was bothing evvyone elthe around, an' then one of the otherth hit me on the head an' I woked up here an'... an' my head hurths... an' I want my mom..."

There was silence for a while, and then something was put on his head. It was his hat. "Xen.. uh.. yer mom says hi, and not ta be scared 'cos everything's gonna turn out okay. 'Kay?"

"'M not scared!" Zee lied. "Jutht... just nervy."

"Good."

"Are we gonna escape from the bad guys?"

Another silence. "Eh, well... yeah, soon. Soon. But you's all gonna escape tagether as a team. You, an' Xena, an' Cassie, an' Griffon, an' Cipher. Cereal's gonna be lookin' fer us, ya can count on him ta have a good plan ready."

Zero almost missed the words that weren't spoken. "What about you?"

"Me? Heh, uh, yeah. I'll be along."

He frowned. "You don't sound too certain."

"Kid... technically, right now, I am one of the bad guys." The man stood up, and without his arm to hold him up, Zero fell back onto the floor. But Fybe helped him over to a corner where he could sit upright again. Then the lock over his wrists was undone. "Ya can't get out," Fyber added in a mutter, "But I brought you some stuff ta chew on. Once ya done, stick yer hands back in there. Won't lock so tightly the next time, and ya can slip 'em out any time ya like then." An unwrapped chocolate bar and some fruit pieces were taken out of a plastic bag and placed in his lap. "It ain't much, but the cafeteria closed so I had ta improvise."

Zero Cool looked at him, bewildered, but nodded. "Okay..."

"I gotta get to the others now," Fyber said softly. "Maybe I'll see ya later. Ciao, Zee."

"Bye.."

*****

A few blocks away, a slim black car pulled into a parking lot, and as its headlamps doused it was lost in the shadows, only the faintest gleam of reflected light proving it was there at all. There was the sound of car doors opening, and three smaller shadows detached themselves from the car. Then the doors closed again with a quiet click.

*****

As the door to Cassie's "cell" closed behind him, Fyber-Optix took a short break and leant against the wall. He checked his watch. Half past twelve already? Time way flying all too fast for his liking - Xenon was just a little way up the hall, but he still had to get to Griffon somewhere east of the compound, and then Cipher at the very furthest end. He wasn't even sure, now, that he'd pilfered enough to go around. A bit peckish himself, he wondered if he couldn't sneak back up and grab some more stuff, but...

A scream and a loud cuss startled him, and he flung himself into the shadows.

Silence.

Nothing.

No closing footsteps, no shadowy figures skulking down the hallway, nothing at all. Fyber stood cautiously, crept up to the corner and peered around. Still nothing. Yer jumping at noises in yer head now, he thought to himself. And then he noticed that the the door leading to the room where Xenon was kept was ajar, open just a crack. Oh shit...

There was no one inside. No one. There wasn't even a sign that she'd somehow got loose and escaped; no cuffs on the floor. He bit his lip, wondering who... no... not Val. He wouldn't be here at this hour of the night, would he? He weren't no night oull. But that scream...

I wasn't hearin' things. That much he knew. He had to look for her. Didn't come this way, or past that corner, I'd've heard or seen somethin'. She's gotta be thataway.

The place was a maze - no, a labyrinth. A musty labyrinth. Whatever the building had been before Webscope had moved in, and before the Invasion, it had sure needed a lot of storerooms and basements. Xenon could be in any one of them and he wouldn't have time to check them all. But every door he passed was locked from the outside and every door looked the same. There was no way of telling whether Xen had been this way or that way or maybe down that way; he didn't even know if he was going in the right damn direction! Fyber was beginning to wonder if he was lost, when he spied a white baseball cap, overturned and kicked into the corner.

He picked it up. Definitely Xenon's.

She wouldn't have left it behind if she could've helped it... okay, this is lookin' bad. This is lookin' very bad. Val's gonna kill her.. or worse. But if I try to stop him, he's gonna kill everyone...

Unless I kill him first.

The very idea made him go cold. Him? Vince? Kill? Well, sure he kept weapons about his person, but he had never had call to use them before and probably would never have in any case. Certainly not on another person. That was Cereal Killer's job.

Ya tried, anyway, a nasty, snide little voice said from the back of his consciousness. Ya tried and failed - ya couldn't pull that trigger! Ya had the perfect shot, an' ya chickened out. Ya ain't got the guts ta kill someone, even if that someone's a homicidal psychopath. Wimp!

Shut up, he told the voice absently, almost hopping from one foot to the other in anxiety. If it came down to his life over someone elses, I could.

Could ya really.

Could I? He had to wonder. Cereal had been right about him - he wasn't a killer. He didn't have a killer bone in his body. Hell, he didn't have a heroic bone, either. Everyone had their chance to be brave, but generally he ran away from those chances. Yet... even so... This is Xenon. I don't like ta admit it, but she's my friend. 'Sides, CK's gonna have me guts fer Snow Festival decorations if I don't help her.

So yer just gonna let Val have yer guts instead. Whoo, yeah, that's a good idea, that is...

Fyber imagined the snide little voice as a balloon - and popped it. The voice faded away, and he stuck Xenon's cap backwards on his head. I'll be needin' all the luck I can get. Still. Whichever way I'll be goin', up or down, I guess I got a fifty-fifty chance of meetin' Alvis!

*****

She was aware that someone was standing near her, but she just wanted to sleep, sinking back into protective unawareness. Yet she was not given that leisure for long - something hit her in the face, twice, hard. Gasping, Xenon struggled to unglue her gummy eyes, and tried to sit up... only to find that she was already sitting up, sprawled ungainly on a crummy old chair. "What... what's going on...?" she croaked, her throat hoarse.

The answering voice was alarmingly familiar, and her eyes opened wide. "Oh, good morning, I thought you would never wake up on time."

"You!"

"Me," Goldeneye nodded. He sat at a makeshift desk, his back turned to her though she caught a glimpse of a syringe or needle in his hands. There was a faintly acrid, acidic smell in the air, along with a faint tang of cherry cola and a low mechanical noise in the background. Xenon raised her head, blearily looking around at the room she was in. She saw a wall entirely of large tin cans and a slimy black beast hulking in the shadows, and promptly decided she was dreaming.

"I come here a lot." Goldeneye was talking to her, and she half-turned her head to him, though he still hadn't looked around. "I find the sounds of the machinery somewhat soothing, especially when I've had a stressful day. There's a certain pacifying quality in the way it always continues at its task, never stopping, never complaining, never needing anything but a good helping of electricity. So much more efficient than an avian, but it has no intelligence, and therefore no conscience."

Little of that made sense to her at the time, as her head pounded with the force of drum beats. "Well I hope you and it are very happy together, so why don't you untie me and let..."

Goldeneye turned before she could finish her sentence, and it was immediately cut short. There was a certain look to his face - oh, it was probably just the play of shadows, but suddenly his face resembled a skull, except his eyes, that seemed to glow. Her smart-aleck tones died and she abruptly felt her need for a drink, for her throat was dry. Then a shift of shadows, and it was back to Val's round, yet still somehow frightening, face. "No," he said slowly, "I'm afraid I can't do that."

He stood up, and she saw the large needle he was holding loosely in his hand. It was filled with a transparent, pale-green liquid of some sort. "You see," he continued, "I'm pretty certain Vincent told you everything. You know what I plan to do, and I simply can't let that knowledge become public. If for nothing else, it'd be a definite setback if I had police and FBI and Drake knows what else snooping around here. They'd never find this room, of course, but it would be disastrous for my reputation and therefore my business."

"What do you want?" she growled.

"I want money. I want power. Don't we all?" He moved closer, just by a step, but she wished she could get away. "Don't you, when it comes down to it? You're a cracker, am I right? Isn't it a business, a way to get money, and an excellent lesson to larger businesses that at any time you could topple them, in a sense, a display of power? Deny it."

"It's... it's a way to survive."

"And in this time when so many were lost to the invasion, when so many records were destroyed, you never thought to take another identity and run a legal business? Webscope was floundering after the invasion. I stepped in and took over, the old tycoon was dead, so were many of his employees, no one really noticed or cared that technically I was not qualified to do so. After I had all the required documents forged... very good forgeries, I might add, as I bought out one of the best fraudulents I could. Had to organize a proper assassination of him afterwards, but it was a necessary bother. In any case, it's all that simple. Whereas I was in the gutter before the invasion, the Saurians have, indirectly, made me an incredibly wealthy man. I'm surprised you never thought to do a similar thing. Unless, of course, it is about holding power over the supposedly supremely powerful."

"No. It's a job."

"Of course. Of course." Goldeneye smiled coldly, and Xenon realized with a start that he was now right next to her. He'd been moving steadily forward the whole time. His hand rested on her arm, and she tried not to shiver. She tried to moved away, but the ropes were too secure.

"You don't care about the thousands who'll die when this happens? Don't you care?"

He actually looked puzzled. "Why should I? They mean nothing to me. They're just people."

"Just people? Just people?"

"Just... people."

She gave him a disgusted look, mingled with anger and some fear. "You're sick..." she began, but faltered.

His return smile could have been fairly pleasant, and on another face, one without signs of madness around soulless eyes, it might have even been handsome. But here it was only a mockery. "You're dead..."

A glint of steel - a brief pain - an angry yell - a surprised yell - a crash of thunder and shadows.

Darkness.

*****

Val Goldeneye hit the floor hard, beak first, and rolled, already knowing who'd attacked him. He shot to his feet with surprising agility and spat blood, wiping at his cut lip. "Well, well, so the little jibbril has become a canid," he snapped, straightening his jacket and glaring at Fyber. "Frankly, I'm amazed. Previously I've noticed your general direction when running is away."

"Cut the crap, Rep. I'm not gonna let you hurt her."

"Really." Val grinned and stepped back, amused. "And how, exactly, are you planning on stopping me?"

"I'll prob'ly figure somethin' out," said Fyber blandly.

Sighing, Goldeneye shook his head as if in dismay. "Vince... you could have been a wealthy man! You could have had power! Your past could have been cleaned, and you could have done anything you wanted, lived a proper life! Why do you have to be such a damned fool?"

Whatever Fyber was going to reply to that was cut off abruptly as Goldeneye moved for the syringe lying on the floor. It was the only weapon between either of them - a needle full of V-8 acid - and neither wanted the other to get their hands on it. Fyber skidded forward and kicked the syringe out across the room just before Val grabbed it, and, furious, Goldeneye lunged for his throat.

Working on a sudden strength born of absolute panic, Fyber dropped back, ducked, and with a direct hit to the stomach flipped Goldeneye over.

The man landed with a crash on his desk, spreading papers and various other things over the floor about them. He slid straight over the top, hit the floor, and sprang into a half-crouch. Wasting no time at all, Goldeneye ripped out one of the drawers and flung it at Fyber like a discus.

He ducked to the side, but could not avoid it entirely, and the sharp corner bounced off his arm. He lost his balance and fell heavily onto his back. Sitting upright, he winced as his shoulder protested loudly with a sudden, nauseating wave of pain, and he touched it gingerly; his hand came away bloody.

Goldeneye did not miss this chance. He vaulted nimbly over the desk, landed in a gymnastic forward flip, and snatched up the syringe. He turned on Fyber, taunting. "You never were as good as I at anything, Vincent." For a moment his face clouded. "Why? Why did she choose you? What did you have? We had everything, Minnette and I... how could she have done that to me?"

"Maybe she decided that homicidal psychopaths ain' her type," Fyber bit back, rising cautiously while he did so. His arm hung a little limp, but he could still move it in spite of the pain. "Y'know, there's a surprisin' amount a' people who don' go for the kill-crazies in society..."

With a snarl of rage, Goldeneye lunged forward, half-punching and half-swatting him in the face, thankfully with his free hand. As Fyber fell, he kicked out with both legs, catching the other in the knee. There was a sickening, squelchy kind of crack, and Goldeneye collapsed screaming.

Unfortunately, Fyber landed heavily on his injured shoulder, and nearly bit his tongue with pain. He rolled away from the now-livid Val, but found he had little room to escape, rolling straight into the wall of V-8. A few canisters teetered for a moment, before toppling off and bouncing on the foor. One of them split open, and a string of bluish-grey plastic baubles dripped out, flopping about like water balloons pushed across a floor. He held his breath, but nothing deadly seemed to emerge.

Something else deadly had managed to get to his feet and was advancing in a swift hobble. "You... are going to die... a slow and... excrutiatingly... painful death... for that," Goldeneye promised.

Groping for something, anything, that could be a weapon, Fyber's hand lighted on something round and soft, its skin membrane-thin and fragile, that had rolled within reach. Tucking it cautiously into the circle of his palm, he clambered upright and faced Val again. "Ya can' kill me," he said.

"Really? Why not?" The man's voice was curious.

"There's someone else out there as has first dibs on it already," he drawled, "ya'll just have ta wait in line like the rest a' 'em."

"Quite the jovial one, you are, for a man about to die."

Fyber shrugged, with difficulty. "I'd like ta go out on a high note."

"Perhaps I can oblige," Val snarled, and Fyber tensed himself for the expected rush. He did not, however, expect the man to simply charge and slam right into him. They landed in a sprawling heap, fists tangling as they tried to get in a few blows. Finally Goldeneye smacked him heavily on the temple, and for a moment Fyber saw stars.

When they cleared he found Goldeneye loomed over him, smirking triumphantly. " I know you're scared, Vinnie," the man smirked. "You never did have much in the way of courage... just bravado. You're all talk."

"An' you talk too much!"

Snaking out a hand, Fyber caught the man's jaw and pulled down, stuffing the balloon-like orb into Val's mouth. His eyes bulging, Goldeneye dropped the syringe and sat back, choking, trying to cough the thing out without damaging it.

Fyber's fist connected solidly with his jaw. "That's for Kitiara." Again. "Tek." Again. "Mercedes and Darry." Again, even harder. "Minette." This time hard enough to drop Goldeneye to the floor. "An' that's fer tryin' ta hurt Xenon."

A thin stream of liquid trickled slowly out of Val's mouth as he lay there staring in horror. Where the acid touched him, a vile smoke of burning feather and flesh rose. Suddenly he screamed and scrabbled upright, but the scream swiftly died into wet gurgle as his throat became a blistering, melting mass. Goldeneye staggered, stumbled, and fell straight into the canisters of V-8.

The entire wall shuddered and began to lean outwards. With a startled curse, Fyber scrambled backwards quickly, spun about, kick-jumped and landed in a run. The wall smashed to the floor, canisters breaking open left right and center, the horrible liquid spilling out over the ground as baubles were squashed and split. There was movement right in the center, but not for long.

Staring, Fyber swallowed hard against a stomach-full of vomit that threatened to come up. Then turning, he carefully picked up Xenon - ignoring the pain in his shoulder - and walked out.

A few minutes later, the acid made its way to the machine that had birthed it.

The resulting explosion shook the building, and the entire city block as well. Fyber, still carrying Xenon in his arms, was knocked to his knees as Webscope trembled. Looking back over his shoulder, he was alarmed to see a trail of flame languidly licking its way along the carpet, slowly but surely catching up to them.

He stood again with some effort and continued to hurry down the hallway. The only problem was, he didn't know where he should be going. The corridor he was following turned somewhat to the left, so for all he knew he was running around in circles, so he might just end up back in the flames. Determined to get out of these ever-decreasing circles he took a side corridor, only to find that not far along it, smoke was billowing through the air toward him.

Backtracking, Fyber took another hallway, one that seemed clearer and cleaner than the others. It was only when he was halfway along did he realize that it had his own black bootprints along it - he was going back the way he'd come!

"Gods damn it!" he yelled. "Does this place have no bloody end?"

A voice: "Fyber?!"

He looked up, to see Griffon bearing down on him. "Are y' both all right?" the Drascovican man asked, peering over his cracked spectacles.

"Dancin' through tulips, pal," grunted Fyber, shifting Xenon's weight onto his uninjured side. "I'm fine, but Xena here's unconscious, an' I haven't got the time ta bring her 'round. Where are the kids an' Cipher?"

"I left them just a ways back. Your shoulder not look too good," he added critically. "I'll take Xenon, you be able to walk better when not in horrific pain, yah?"

"That's the understatement of the millenium."

They found the others just where Griffon had said he left them. The kids greeted Fyber enthusiastically, Cassie even flying into his arms and kissing his cheek. It was rather embarrassing, but Fyber didn't really mind at that point. "Ooh... watch the shoulder, kid," he warned her. Glancing around at he others, he asked, "How'd y'all get out?"

"We heard weird noises comin' from some way," Zero answered seriously. "So we thought we better go see what it was. I found Cassie an' freed her, then we found the others and freed them, then we couldn't find you or mom, so Griffon went looking. He found you."

"I figured out that last part on my own." He grinned weakly. "Thanks, guys."

"Not problem," said Griffon.

Cipher added, "Yeah, what would we ever do without you, Stu?"

Well, ya wouldn't've been in this big ol' mess fer one thing, he thought, but kept such thoughts to himself. He recognized the hallway now, and he knew that the exit was not far from them. "Ya'd probably end up wit' yer very own junk pile a' stuff as ya couldn' fix. Come on, I know the way out from here, an' we better leave quick, 'cos that explosion might not be the last a' 'em."

*****

While the explosion had shaken everyone off their feet down below, up on the street it had simply caused a moment's imbalance. Cereal Killer, used to perching in precarious and shaky places such as the tops of rickety scaffolding, old beams, and on one occasion a washing line, simply walked through it as if nothing was happening.

Cutter placed his hand on a wall and tried to look as though nothing was bothering him. He did, however, raise an inquisitive eyebrow. "What was that?"

"How should I know?" replied CK curtly. "Something large went boom, and that's all I can tell you."

His cellphone rang. He paused in the street, hitting the receive button. "You should take a look at this," said the voice of the Mad Hatter, without waiting for any kind of acknowledgement. Cereal pulled the cellphone away from his ear and watched as the vid-screen came up with a security camera picture. Even though the picture was in shades of grey, he could tell that the building was full of flames.

Sparky peered over CK's shoulder at the screen - not hard, considering the boy's height. "That looks bad," he commented in a worried voice. "You really think they're in there?"

"Almost definitely, now. Hatter, can you locate anyone?"

"'Fraid not. However, there are some really... interesting... files here in Goldeneye's personal databases, concerning fraud, murder, funding of terrorist activities, a bit of dabbling in the deliberate sabotage of rival companies... You name it, this guy's done it, or paid to have it done."

"I'm not interested in Goldeneye's activities," Cereal grated. "I'm interested in shooting Fyber."

"Well, I... wait, I think I just saw a shadow or two in one of the screens. Someone's in the main entrance and moving to leave the building."

"Thank you."

Down the phoneline, Cereal heard the sound of beeps and clicks of a harddrive at work, frantically copying. "What are you doing?" he hissed.

"Copying the files so that I can prove that the workers at Webscope weren't aware of any of this, so they don't lose their jobs."

"So they'd be on the dole for a while. Poor things. Who cares?" With that, he cut the connection, tucking the cellphone away. "Someone's coming out."

It was Fyber, bleeding heavily from the shoulder, coughing and waving smoke away from his face as he looked up and down the road. Cereal motioned for everyone to move back, before he stepped out of the shadows and approached the man.

Fyber looked up, startled, but also relieved. "Cereal! Man, I don't think I've ever been glad ta see ya before, but I guess there's a first time fer everythin'.."

"Shut it," Cereal snarled, reaching a hand back to his belt. The cellphone started ringing again, but he ignored the sound in favor of his revolver.

"Huh?... no, no, hang on a second, CK, lemme explain..."

"No explanations," he deadpanned, leveling the gun at him. "Die."

"Oh, fuck."

"Nooo! Don't shoot him!"

Zero Cool's shout came a bit too late: Cereal pulled the trigger. Fyber stumbled back, tripped on the curb and hit the sidewalk hard. The silver duck looked down in bemusement at the red stain spreading over his chest, and then gave CK an equally puzzled look. "Ya've really got some gratitude problem, ya know that, man...?"

His eyes rolled back and he slumped onto the asphalt.

Cereal blinked, looking up to see the rest of the HACKERS as they appeared out of the flaming woodwork, Griffon and Cipher carrying Xenon between them. Then he looked down at Fyber, and again at the others, whom Cutter and Sparky were running over to.

"Oh. Oops."

*****

Xenon woke up with a raging headache and a feeling of currently being somewhere she'd never been before. Opening her eyes just a crack, she found herself looking up at a ceiling of whitewashed brown stone. There was a faint smell of detergent in the room. Okay... This isn't how I pictured Hell, and since there's no way I'd go to Heaven...

She lolled to one side, blinking blearily through the thick bandages that swathed her head. Someone she recognized was lying on the bed across from her. "Ah, told you I'd see you again." Her voice was croaky and dry. "This must be Hell."

"Actually," the familiar voice of CK said from another side of the room, "this is the Brotherhood base."

"I got to see Cutter's workroom!" Cassie squealed happily.

She looked over at the two of them, and smiled weakly. "Oh... hey guys. What's up with Fybe?"

Cereal shrugged. "Shot him."

"Can't I leave you on your own for... how long has it been?"

"Couple of days."

"Right, a couple of days without you shooting someone? Apologize!"

"I can't," Cereal pointed out. "He hasn't woken up yet." There was a brief, slightly awkward silence, before he turned to the other watcher in the room. "Cassie, how about you go tell Zee and the others that Xenon's woken up, huh?"

"Okay!" the girl chirped, dashing quickly out of the room.

Xenon sat up a little, and Cereal silently pulled a chair over, sitting down next to her. "How are you always getting yourself kidnapped?"

She smiled tiredly at him. "Hey, when you've got it, you've got it." Sighing, she looked again at Fyber, who was lying horribly still. She frowned slightly. "How is he?"

"Stable."

"Dead is stable."

"He's alive." Cereal's face was unreadable, the visor hiding his eyes. "I missed his heart. Just. Hit a rib, but it's still pretty bad. He almost bled to death on the way."

"Oh." She thought this over. "Good. About him being alive, that is. He is useful sometimes."

"Sometimes."

"Did you really have to shoot him?" Cereal stubbornly refused to answer. Xenon sighed, and then winced. "I have a headache to rock Keltor," she stated. After a short pause, she pointed at him, and then patted her beak with a wink. "Come on, make me feel better."

"Oh. Well. You're the boss." He leant his arms on either side of her, and she tipped her head back so that their lips met. For a brief moment.

"Lovely. Well, while you two get all cushy an' mushy, I think I'll go back ta sleep."

Xenon opened her eyes, swiveling her head around to see Fyber had opened an eye and was watching them with a faint smirk. "Oh good, you woke up. I thought we might have to look for a new mechanic."

"Ehh.. couldn't let you guys be landed wit' someone second rate, 'ey?" Fyber looked around in some confusion, but Xenon noticed there was also relief in his eyes. She didn't blame him. He'd probably had similar ideas about where he expected to wake up.

As she thought up a good comeback to his remark, something that Cereal had said earlier struck her. "Why are we in the Brotherhood base?" She groaned. "Oh no, please don't tell me they bailed us out of that mess..."

"I'd... attained the assistance," Cereal replied carefully, "of Cutter and Sparky on my way. Our base is a mess. Everything's ruined. They offered to let us bring you both here."

Xenon rolled her eyes. "And I suppose we'll have to stay forever now, huh? I mean, Drake forbid we tell anyone what we saw!"

"Without their help you'd be dead," CK said, not quite snapping at her but sounding more cross than he usually would. "So swallow your tongue and behave. Now."

She blinked in shock, and closed her beak with a snap. Fyber blinked, too, and tried to sit upright - whereupon pain started making itself a lot more pronounced. "Ooohhh... damn it all, I feel like I've been-- hang on." He gave Cereal a somewhat indignant look. "You shot me," he said, accusingly. "Jeez, do ya never bother wit' askin' questions first?"

"Quicker and easier in the long run."

Xenon cleared her throat and looked at him pointedly, but the drake ignored her.

"Well," grouched Fyber, "I'm bloody glad yer aim's so awful."

"I'm a perfect shot." Cereal glared at him. "I just like making people suffer."

"If I can't be nasty, neither can you," said Xenon, pulling herself upright and running a hand across her cheek. She was hot, and annoyed, and thirsty as all hell. There was a small glass of water sitting beside her bed and she reached out to it eagerly.

Meanwhile, Cereal turned away so neither could see his face. "I'm... sorry about shooting you, Optix," he finally said, albeit rather unenthusiastically. "I was wrong." He stood there for a brief second before heading out the door again, muttering something about going to find the doctor, though Xenon doubted this was entirely true.

"Apology accepted," said Fyber dryly, watching the door close. "Wish I'd been able ta record that."

Xenon rubbed her forehead. "Let me tell you this, Fyber-Optix. If you ever, ever pull something like that again, you'll be recording your own death rattle."

"Pull something like what?" He quirked an eyebrow.

"Anything you don't check with me first."

Fyber just kept grinning. "Yes, ma'am, boss lady, ma'am."

She scowled briefly at him, then settled back. "I feel awful, but I bet you feel worse."

"Ya'd be guessin' right. But I don' want CK gettin' any kinda satisfaction knowin' that, so..." The grin disappeared for a moment, and then he shrugged carefully. "But, hey, I guess I'm all in one piece, so that's good news at least."

Xenon closed her eyes. "It's better than the alternative."

"Yeah," he said brightly. "I still got my good looks!"

She laughed, then winced as it made her skull ache. "Ow. My head..." She stopped mid-whine. "No, no, I am not going to complain. I'm going to be the perfect patient." Pausing, she smiled a faint twitch of a smile. "For once."

"Bet that ya won't wanna follow doctor's orders, though."

"That depends on what they are, naturally."

"Oh, of course."

There was something else bugging Xenon, too, and she returned the sideways look. "Fyber? I don't really remember what happened, but before I blacked out I thought I saw... Did you save my life?"

A short, embarrassed silence ensued for a few seconds, and she carefully moved around so she was facing him. "I guess that depends on who ya ask," he said after a while, evasively.

"I asked you."

"I don' really wanna talk about it."

"What happened to Val?"

"I don' wanna talk about that, either."

"Can't you tell me anything?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I don' wanna talk about it."

Xenon snorted. "It can't have been that bad... can it?" she added, suddenly plagued by unwelcome memories. 'What do you want?' 'I want money. I want power. Don't we all?' 'You don't care about the thousands who'll die when this happens? Don't you care?' 'Why should I? They mean nothing to me.' 'You're sick...' 'You're dead...' The fear came back to hit her ten-fold.

"Xena? You're cryin'..."

"Thanks for warning me," she snuffled, wiping hurriedly at her eyes. She hadn't realized she was getting teary, and was quick to brush away the evidence. She didn't want to cry.

Fyber-Optix sighed from the other bed. "Who'm I kiddin', you had it rougher than me."

She opens her eyes wide to ensure no more crying, making her eyes dry out but also giving her a somewhat helpless appearance. "I can't argue with that unless you tell me what happened. And if we didn't argue," she added, "we'd be so bored."

"Yeah, I guess..." His voice trailed off for a moment, and he shook his head carefully. "There ain't much to tell. Val's dead, and last I saw of the Webscope building was it goin' up in flames."

The atmosphere was heavy and dark, almost tangible, and Xenon disliked the somewhat morbid feeling it provoked. She tried to break the heaviness. "Damn, guess those warranties are void now."

He looked over at her and grinned slightly - the heaviness wasn't quite broken, but it was a little lighter at least. "Probably. An' a lotta stuff there could've been worth savin', too."

"Okay, take a note. Next time we're being held by an evil maniac, we don't make such a mess."

Fyber's face twisted slightly at the word 'mess', but the grin stayed relatively in place. "I'll have you know I don' blow things up as often as some people 'round here do. An' that weren't really my fault, neither."

"You do realise I'm gonna annoy the hell outta you until you tell me the story, right?"

"Yeah," he said, sighing. "I get the distinct feelin' ya ain't gonna leave it alone. Look, what I said, was true. Val's dead. Val.. I knew 'im a long time ago, well, 'knew' is such a strong word. I met him once, y'know? It wasn't.. it wasn't a nice meeting." Fyber hesitated, then half-sat up and looked at her - it was a surprisingly acute look. "But I'm guessin' ya know most of that, anyway."

She nodded. "Yeah. CK knows better than to keep suspicions to himself."

Fyber smiled drily, sitting back down again. "Thought so. So I can tell ya Val was Rep Tealle and you'd have a good idea what he'd done. He was gonna add you ta his homicide list."

"I believe you," she said softly, staring up at the ceiling.

"How much do ya remember?" he asked - a little warily, she noted.

"I said 'You're sick', and he said 'You're dead', and he was going to pump me up with acid. And you showed up, but after that I don't know. I guess I passed out again," she muttered, feeling a little ashamed to admit her fear.

"Yeah, I heard that part. I.. the acid's what started the fire. It all kinda exploded."

"Figures. Then what?"

"I dragged ya outta there, got the others, we ran outside, first thing greets me was a bullet. I felt very appreciated," he added ironically.

"Oh, you are. Despite evidence to the contrary," she continued, her tones just as sardonic as his had been, "I'm not ready to die just yet."

"Neither was I, that's most the point."

Xenon yawned, listening vaguely as her jaws clicked and her ears popped. She wished she wasn't so tired. "So... how'd Val die?"

He seemed to freeze, and immediately she raised an eyebrow. Is that the problem? She half expected him to evade the question, as usual, and was a little surprised when he answered. "Uh.. not.. not very nicely."

"In the explosion?"

"I think he was mostly dead before that," he said faintly.

"Cereal..."

"No."

She blinked, frowned. "I'm concussed and tired, spell it out for me." A thought she found somewhat amusing crossed her mind. "You kill him?"

"Yeah."

"What?" Suddenly the amusement factor was gone, and she found herself staring. Fyber-Optix? The anti-killing freak, unofficial conscience in a way, actually pick up a gun or whatever and kill someone? It was strangely disturbing. "Whoa."

"Xena, I.." He gave her a bleak look. "You know how he was gonna pump you wit' that acid stuff..?"

No! "You.. you did that to him..?"

He shook his head, still looking haunted. "Not quite. We.. we were fightin'.. some of the canisters opened up, spilled out a whole heap of little plastic balls. That's what the acid was packed in, 'bout the size a' large marbles. An' then he was gloatin'.. I kinda went an' shoved one inta his beak an' hit him. A number of times. He swallowed acid."

Nausea welled into her stomach as the impact of that hit her. "Shit."

"Ain't it just."

"Well, better him than us," she said finally. "And it's not like everyone has to know."

"An' maybe they never will... but I know," Fyber replied, in the same - somewhat hollow - tone of voice. "I'm the one that killed him."

Xenon sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the infirmary bed. The bandages about her head slid over her eyes as she stood shakily, and she pushed them back. "No, Vince," she said softly. "You're the one who saved us."

 

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